Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Benjamin Douglass (1830–1904)

by S. Merrifield

This article was published:

Benjamin Douglass (1830-1904), trade unionist, was born on 21 March 1830 at Greenwich, Kent, England, son of John Douglass, a Quaker and Chartist. As an apprentice plumber he married Mary Stacy at Wokingham, Berkshire. In January 1855, described as a bricklayer, he arrived at Portland in the Shand; next month he went to Melbourne where he at once became involved in trade union and radical activity, particularly the agitation for the eight-hour day, in which he was prominent for thirty years. In 1856 he became the first president of the Operative Plasterers' Society and a member of the first eight-hour committee which successfully gained the concession for some building trades workers on 21 April. Douglass was convinced of the need for continued union organization and in 1857 was one of the prime movers in the United Trades Association, which became the Trades Hall and Literary Institute Committee. He also saw the need for unskilled workers to belong to the union movement and helped to form an Organization of Labourers and in 1859, with Charles Don, the short-lived Political and Social Labour League.

By 1860 Douglass was one of the outstanding trade union leaders of Victoria. He had helped to clarify conditions in industries where subcontracting applied. In the 1860s his industrial work led him into political action to seek protection for local industries. In 1865 he was chairman of the Central Protection Committee and of Graham Berry's election committee, and in 1870 his prominence was recognized in his election as president of the Victorian Industries Protection League. In 1871 he was defeated at Collingwood in the general election. In 1872 he became secretary of the Australian Democratic Association in support of the Duffy ministry. He moved to Warrnambool where in 1874 he became secretary of a coal-mining company, helped to establish the Artisans' School of Design and became an employer and a member of the borough council.

Returning to Melbourne, Douglass became a clerk of works in the public service in 1881 and later an inspector; in 1884 he supervised the building of the law courts. In 1882 he had become a council member of the Working Men's College and was its vice-president until 1885. He was president of the Trades Hall Council in 1884-86 and chaired the 1884 Intercolonial Trades Union Congress. His increasing conservatism was reflected in his leadership of the trustees of the Trades Hall in the bitter struggle for control with affiliated unions in 1884-87. By the late 1890s he was opposed to strike action, although he had been prominent in the 1890 maritime strike and had encouraged George Higinbotham to donate to strike funds. Douglass was one of the two mourners who accompanied the family when Higinbotham was buried in 1892. Douglass remained active in community affairs until his death on 4 February 1904. He was buried in the Melbourne general cemetery, survived by five of his eight children.

For more than fifty years Douglass played a significant role in Victorian industrial history. His responsible co-operation with employers indicated the effects of protection in the colony and conditioned his drift away from the radical phase of his early career. On his death Nathaniel Levi of the Chamber of Manufactures commented that 'the men who were mixed up with the eight hours movement in the early days were different to what they are now'.

Select Bibliography

  • The History of Capital and Labour (Syd, 1888)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 6 Feb 1905
  • Eight hour souvenir, Co-operator, 7 Oct 1912.

Citation details

S. Merrifield, 'Douglass, Benjamin (1830–1904)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


21 March, 1830
London, Middlesex, England


4 February, 1904 (aged 73)
Victoria, Australia

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